| by Laurie Patton

Welcome to Middlebury. You’ve had a whole week of college life behind you. You’ve met some people. You know a few buildings. You’ve got some mental maps to follow. And this ceremony tonight is another kind of mental map—a map of wisdom. The little book that we’ve given you, with sayings—we give that to students every year, and we want you to keep it with you. You can return to it again and again when you need wisdom, when you are in need of lenses to help you to see better.

I’m talking to you tonight about wisdom, because as a college student, you will become wise. You learn that wisdom is more than just knowledge. It is using that knowledge in the right way, understanding information and how it can be used for good in the world.

In your booklet, Lenji the Zen master writes that the beginning of wisdom is students having faith in themselves. So, let’s start there. Everyone at Middlebury is talented, just like you, but talented in different ways. And that can be exhilarating, but it might also at times be disorienting and discouraging. People you’re meeting may already know staggering amounts about subjects you’ve never heard of, lived in places that you can barely find on a map, already found ways to address social and environmental challenges you’re just starting to hear about. And maybe you’ve met a few of those people that Nicole just talked about—people who have started their own businesses, participated in competed in athletic contests you didn’t know existed, won championships, and built communities. And, as you’ve probably already discovered, the slightly comforting and slightly annoying thing about Middlebury: these four-language-speaking athletic NGO-starting environmental activists who write operas in their spare time are really nice about it, too. That’s the Middlebury way.

But no matter how accomplished everyone at Middlebury is, know that intellect and accomplishment are not wisdom. Wisdom is not knowing or achieving a lot but knowing and achieving your own truth. So, this is the first part about becoming wise: your job is not to be like others. Your job is to be like yourself. So, I ask you now, and I will never tire of asking you throughout your time here: how long might you worry, like some of you are right now, sitting in those benches and listening to us? How long might you worry about who you are not, when you can be getting on with the glorious business of being who you are? Your job at Middlebury is to become more like yourself—whoever that person is and wherever that person takes us and our community.

Once you stop comparing yourself to everyone else, then you can go on to the second part of wisdom: understanding that you are Middlebury; you belong here. You belong here because you have the creativity, and drive, and grit that is characteristic of the people who come here. You’ve come after a high school experience unlike any other, during a global disruption unlike anything we have seen in a century. Thanks to COVID, you may have had lengthy interruptions to your experience in an in-person classroom. You might feel like your critical thinking skills—the very things you wanted to come to Midd to develop—and maybe you also feel like your in-person conversations skills are still a little rusty too.

I want you to know you belong here even more. That’s because you are recovery artists—people who are building back after a tragedy and focusing on deepening community after a lot of loss and chaos. But you come with grit and hope. There are a myriad of ways, stated and unstated, that you are different than the students who began at Middlebury just a few years before. It is our job to listen, to pause, to take the time to understand what experiences you are bringing with you, and to invite you to evolve with us, into a wider Middlebury, one that incorporates all that we have learned from the challenges of the past few years. We have a chance to work together to recover and rebuild the world.

So here are a few more things about wisdom. As you explore, remember that part of wisdom is having the courage to ask for help. It is a good thing to do so. A really good thing. You need friends, and family, and advisors, and professors, and classmates, and coaches, and librarians, and Compass mentors, and townspeople you met on a project, and teammates, to help you keep going. At Middlebury, we expect you to be brave enough to ask for help. You need what I call “local courage” to connect with others and learn from them so that you yourself can thrive. You are coming to a community that will help you—even as they travel on their own journeys, and that will step up for the people around them. 

I want to share a few notes from the summer to tell you exactly what kind of extraordinary community you are coming into. Here is just a small sample of how we’ve been doing so over the past few months.

We are making tremendous strides in our Energy2028 initiative. This is a plan that, in part, intends for Middlebury to achieve 100 percent main energy from renewable energy resources by 2028—and it’s a project that students helped define and are helping to lead. This summer, with the addition of a new solar project in early 2023, we are very close to achieving that 100 percent renewable goal. We have also reduced our campus energy consumption by 10 percent, on the way to our goal of 25 percent, and our endowment is on track to be fully divested from fossil fuels in the next decade, and probably much sooner than that.

Fifteen students were engaged as Climate Action Fellows over the summer, working with organizations and on self-designed projects to determine how to help all students prepare to act on climate change. This fall, they’ll be bringing their projects to campus and putting their ideas into action.

We’re using a recent anonymous $25 million programming grant—the largest such grant in our history—to train students and community members in conflict transformation, an effort to tackle growing divisiveness in the public square. Already, this grant is making an impact—21 students had local and national internships this summer through our Privilege & Poverty program, which looks at the effects of poverty and the ways in which conflict is started by a difference in privilege and poverty levels.

One of this past summer’s interns worked at the Addison County Public Defender’s Office and Restorative Justice Services. She’s said that her internship experience has helped her look at conflict differently. Providing community support to offenders isn’t easy, she says, but she’s been able to do the important work of helping both adults and young people realize the impact of their actions and repair some of the harm they’ve caused.

I’m eagerly awaiting reports from our students who spent the summer engaged with work funded by Projects for Peace grants. Junior Kevin Ntoni ’24, an economics major, organized a two-week accelerated tech boot camp for high school students in Accra, Ghana. The session, held in August, aimed to boost digital skills through training and mentorship, and then to teach young people how to leverage those skills for economic gain. Senior Nhi Dang ’23, a first-generation college student and a computer science major, was working to address educational inequality exacerbated by COVID in the rural Mekong Delta region with a project called Bridging the Gap: Rural Education in Vietnam.

Our future weeks’ stories for the 2022–23 academic year should be equally inspiring—and not because of the individual accomplishments, but because of the extraordinary, unique collaboration that helped those individuals to thrive.

The reading from Proverbs that we heard just now stated that wisdom is better than silver or gold, worth more than the gems of trade. We could take this to mean that it’s better to have a meaningful life than a wealthy life. And that would be true, and something we want you to remember. At Middlebury, you will get an education that will help you live a meaningful life, no matter what your salary is. The liberal arts and sciences tradition embraces all majors, all minors, and all programs, and assumes everything you study is relevant as we join together to face down climate change, inequality, and the other key questions of our time. I speak of real Middlebury lives here: the history major can become a major global technology leader. The economics major can fall in love with filmmaking and work in a nonprofit that teaches gaming to recently arrived Afghani citizens fleeing the Taliban.

In another reading you heard tonight, the Gita tells us that wisdom comes from controlling the senses, and that being wise begins with discipline, and Middlebury will ask that of you. That’s the rigor that we’re known for and that we know you already have. It’s a discipline that we hope is joyful. And you will hear about joy from the members of the women’s field hockey, ice hockey, and lacrosse teams, all three of whom went on in a single year last year to become NCAA national champions for Division III. We think this is unprecedented. And it took incredible discipline to do it—and a few hair-raising moments as well. But there was also joy. If you ask a player on the field hockey team, you will hear that Coach Katharine DeLorenzo never talks about winning: she talks about strategy, and the elegance and beauty of the game. That’s joy and discipline together!

In the reading from the New Testament tonight, James tells us that wisdom is “filled with mercy and with good fruits. It is not divided.” That is also a Middlebury form of wisdom. One of our alumnae, Shabana Basij-Rasikh, Class of 2010, knew this instinctively after she led 240 staff and students of SOLA, the first boarding school for girls in Afghanistan, out of Kabul last year as the Taliban approached. After they had made it out safely to their new home in Kigali, Rwanda, she called me and told me that some alumni of SOLA had also escaped with her. They were currently university students in various parts of South Asia but felt that they would be safest if they finished their college education at Middlebury. Could we accommodate them? Our answer was to raise $3 million in two weeks, and after a transfer application process we are proud to say that nine Afghani women have just completed their first semester at Middlebury with us this past spring.  That’s Middlebury wisdom—staying together, remaining undivided, in pursuit of the best education for the most deserving, even in extreme times.

Finally, in your readings for tonight, the Quran states that God “gives wisdom to whomever He will.” Certainly, whatever religion you are part of, or none, all of these Middlebury students—the ones who are working on Energy2028 on our biodigester and our solar field and our renewable energy sources, the ones who studied history and went on to lead a global technology think tank, the one who works to heal conflict within the correctional system in Addison County, the one who pulled her students and staff away from the Taliban with one day’s notice—all of them use the Middlebury wisdom which you hear about in these pages.

Most importantly, these students’ classes at Middlebury gave them the long view of history, and of politics, and of religion. It gave them the critical thinking skills to question, to probe, and to build. It gave them a sense of justice, and fair process, and the need for access to knowledge for all—whether through education or media. The relationships they built and ideas they encountered here were models for them as they moved out into the world beyond Middlebury, Vermont. In other words, they didn’t just gain knowledge here; they gained wisdom, and even courage.

Middlebury, the community, gave them that wisdom and courage. Those students continued to stand for their principles—principles they learned here. Another way to put it is that Middlebury literally gave them heart. And Middlebury will do it again, this year, for you, our first-year students.

I want to leave you with a final, global story. Last year, we were in touch with another Afghani Middlebury alum fleeing from danger in Kabul. I sent him a picture of Middlebury every day that he was trying to get out. He wrote back:

“Middlebury is my second home. Middlebury’s training helped me make a name for myself in the world. I am overwhelmed by its kindness, and I am trying to reach my mother of knowledge and her city as soon as possible.“

This alum, Bilal Sarwary, who graduated just over 10 years ago, is now one of the world’s top reporters on Afghanistan and living in Canada. During his own hair-raising escape, he took comfort from the pictures of the Vermont mountains all around us now, because that is where he found his intellectual and spiritual home.

So, I’ll end with a question about those mountains, and I want you all to answer it: Many say that, with its glorious landscape and intellectual pursuit in a deeply supportive environment, Middlebury is like wilderness training for the mind, heart, body, and soul. And I want to ask you: ARE YOU IN?

This is the essence of a 21st-century Middlebury education: to encourage, to give heart. Tens of thousands of Middlebury students found their wisdom and courage here. And so will you. Welcome to Middlebury. Thank you.